The Pain of the Earth: an Interview With Duane “Chili” Yazzie


Chili Yazzie Photo by Robert Esposito.

Duane “Chili” Yazzie delivered the keynote at The Red Nation and UNM KIVA Club’s march and rally in Albuquerque on October 12, 2015 in celebration of the city’s first Indigenous Peoples Day, formerly known as Columbus Day. Yazzie is the President of the Shiprock Chapter of the Navajo Nation. Withal, Yazzie’s keynote received scant mention in the establishment and alternative presses, including the Indian press, which is disturbing.

The crux of his talk was a provocative challenge to Washington and Rome regarding the abolition of the Vatican’s Doctrine of Discovery. With his speech, in part prepared as testimony for the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs hearing in September, Yazzie has thrust his people into an ongoing national conversation about the ideological underpinnings of, as he terms it, Columbus’ voyage of “conquest by destruction.”

“Yá’át’ééh,” Chili Yazzie called, commencing his address, is the Navajo expression of greeting and literally means: “It is good.”

A useful précis on the current movement within Christianity to confront the Doctrine of Discovery can be found in “Scandal in Plain Sight” according to the National Catholic Reporter. When asked to account for the Vatican’s non-engagement on this vital issue, Steve Newcomb of the Indigenous Law Project characterized the Vatican’s stance as one of “denial.”:

“There is a difficulty for the church in reconciling those documents and that language to the teachings that are attributed to Jesus in the Bible,” he said. “How in the heck do you have document after document after document [like the papal bulls in question] and then claim that you have this beneficial enterprise that you’ve been promoting throughout the world?”

Those documents had consequences, he said. “It’s not just a bunch of words on paper. When you understand the way in which language constitutes reality — that words and their meanings form the very basis of reality — then what form of reality was being constituted by the issuance of these documents?”

Reality was very much on Yazzie’s mind when we met to discuss the thoughts he’d laid out in his remarks on Indigenous Peoples Day.

On Indigenous Peoples Day you greeted us in the audience at Civic Plaza as “five-fingered humans.” Is this usual?

It’s one of the ways we describe ourselves in our Native tongue that fits everybody. I wasn’t there to speak solely to Indigenous Peoples, but to everybody. I wanted to make everybody feel I was talking to them.

You referred to our human relationship with the Earth as a mother-child relationship.

That’s the truth. In the creation story, we were formed of mounds of earth into which the Creator blew spirit. That is our composition. That is what we are. That’s the reality. We are literally of the earth. The Earth is our mother, the Spirit is our father. This is the foundation of who we are. Why we are, what we are.

You said in the speech that “the Earth feels pain.”

Of course, the Earth is a living entity. It feels the millions of penetrations of her skin, the gouging out of her insides, she may feel this perhaps in a different paradigm, a different reality, but certainly one that parallels our sense of life and reality. Our time/space dimension is not the only dimension there is. It may be that the experience that we have in our time/space is very elementary and undeveloped. Other dimensions may be greater.

It is in that sense that we recognize that the Earth is alive and feels pain.

You expressed concern that we are “failing as Earth’s stewards.”

Collectively, as humankind. As Indigenous Peoples we recognize our relationship with the Earth—our advocacy and practice of keeping in balance with the Earth. And we also recognize that the governments’ and corporations’ propensity for destruction is more powerful than what we can deal with, they are the ones destroying the Earth. But we will continue to advocate and defend her, we appeal to all who will listen.

In what sense do Indigenous Peoples hold “the Original Intent?”

The Original Intent is what we were living when Columbus came. He described us very well asIn Dios, an Italian phrase for “in God.” That’s where the word Indian comes from. In a letter to Queen Isabella and King Ferdinand he called us peace-loving, happy, giving of everything we had. It was a beautiful existence that we had, an Eden on Earth in this hemisphere; that is how the Creator intended us to live in the paradise he created for us. Columbus was a purveyor of destruction and his descendants carry on his dastardly work.

One of the many powerful moments of the speech was when you cried out “the Earth must be repaired.” But how?

We have to have enough of us here who are concerned and who understand the consequences of the ongoing destruction, to understand that that destruction is killing the Earth. The governments and corporations have to accept that that is the reality. It may be too late, or getting close to being too late. It past the 11th hour. We either do what’s right to balance and prolong the life of the Earth, or let’s be ready for the end.

You have grandchildren?

Eight and one great grandchild, two weeks old. On their behalf and all grandchildren I don’t mince words. And I say for the majority of the human race…the framers of policy and programs that dictate how humankind should live are lost. They don’t seem to even understand this discussion, it’s just money and amassing more worldly possessions to them. But it’s imperative that they hear us, not only Natives of the Western Hemisphere but all Indigenous Peoples. We hold the connection to survival. To them I say: You’d better listen to us if you want your grandchildren to survive. Your millions of dollars in the bank will not save your grandchildren.

You mentioned “scarcity of water the world over.” This scarcity is worsening, is it not?

Yes. Not only for drinking water, but water to grow crops. People in some parts of the world are dying of thirst, of hunger. It’s not just isolated, these conditions are becoming more pervasive. And it’s not their fault.

Weather patterns have changed—we do not get the rains and snows we need to replenish the aquifers. Water levels are decreasing regionally. Lake Powell is at an all-time low. People are scared; in Arizona and California people are frantic knowing that the quantity and availability of water can be measured in terms of years and days. What do you do when the water runs out?

You used the term “solemn responsibility.” What do you mean by that?

Solemn responsibility is knowing that we are in a desperate and critical condition and committing to do all we must to protect the future of our coming generations. Within my limited abilities I am doing what I can to live up to it, in the positions I take, the advocacy I make. As an elected official back home I am putting the building blocks in place to create a condition of self-sufficiency, of feeding ourselves. The young people are very interested. They know it’s what we have to do.

You often reach out to others, invite them into the movement. But who are these others you want to include?

Everybody who cares about their families, their communities, their world. It involves and concerns all of us. We live the same life. If people don’t come to terms with our situation, we are all going down. There will be no exceptions.

This is why the retraction of the Doctrine of Discovery is so crucial, is it not?

I have to wonder what the fallout would be in terms of policy if the pope did retract it. In our understanding, much of the land grab, decimation of Indian populations, enslavements, relocations, the displacements are all attributable to the Doctrine of Discovery, ultimately. That’s what set the wheels in motion for the so-called Christian world to subjugate Native peoples. We understand their hesitation to address that. We want the recognition of all we’ve lost, we understand that it is not realistic to seek full reparations, no amount of reparations can right the great wrong perpetrated on us, anyways. But here’s what we do want:

*Recognition that the Doctrine of Discovery was not right, that it is still wrong.

*Recognition of the loss of lands and the life-ways of our peoples.

*A discussion of what kinds of reparations are possible? What would be acceptable to the people?

*That the U.S. government, the Vatican and all the other so-called civilized nations that benefited from the edict by the pope accept that responsibility.

That’s the very least of what we would want.

If tomorrow the Vatican overturned the edict, what would you wish for?

A seat at the table as equals with all the powers-that-be to engage in a dialog with those that would be interested to bring resolution, a resolution acceptable to us. It is due to the Doctrine of Discovery that the U.S. has exercised its stranglehold paternalism on us for all these years. They are used to dictating what they think is right for us, even if we disagree.

What would be the motivation for Power to engage?

America is supposedly the land of freedom, liberty and justice for all, for us that’s been a false facade since day one. If America is to live up to its ideals, live up to what democracy is all about, then they would have an interest, as all we ask for is justice.

We have been stating our case to the federal government for many years. And all we get is lip service. Lip service, and the paternalistic heavy hand. We have never achieved the level of equity—to be treated as equals. That hasn’t happened and it must, if they have a conscience. We know best what’s right for us.

Ideally, we would sit across from congress and the U.S. president. This is what we want; this is our expectation. We would present our case in a reasonable manner, within the realms of prevailing politics and understanding the limitations on resources. But we must write our own ticket; that will be a huge advance.

That is one thing I envision: a day in a Joint Session of Congress and the president. We, as Native peoples need to have our say. I have to qualify that to say I’m meaning the grassroots, not the formalized tribal governments.

We have borne the brunt of bad policy, unscrupulous collusion with corporations destroying what we have left and not only what we have our name on, but the whole Earth. There is a timeline that the Earth is facing if governments and corporations do not take heed.

Secondly, we feel Indigenous Peoples’ priorities must be emphasized in relation to those of the federal government and states. Counting the days since the relationship began with the U.S. federal government in 1776, some 88,000 days or, the 190,000 days since Columbus. Give us our one day to say our peace!

What consequences could there be?

Benefits rather than consequences: we need the opportunity to redesign, reemphasize what should be happening with our world, our lives, our resources, on our terms. And the Doctrine of Discovery discussion would be included.

My challenge to the U.S. government includes an appeal to justice and a demand to indict the Doctrine of Discovery in the tribunal of law, foundational precepts of ‘blind lady’ justice. It should be found to be illegal, determined to be unjust within the definition of what the United States purportedly stands for.

There’s much that I admire about your use of language. Would you care to say something of your influences, particularly literary ones?

I don’t read much; there’s so much good literature, but it’s just the lack of enough time. I’ve been able to become articulate in written and spoken English, mostly self-taught, as I am not formally educated. I’ve managed to teach myself the English language—how to use it, how to write it.

Our elders won’t give you a whole lesson about this and that. They’ll give you hints here and there and if you’re worthy of their mentorship, you will figure out what the lesson is, sometimes not until years later. My dad hinted that in this world there are four ways of being: Chief, Warrior, Medicine Person, Interpreter. My purpose in this world, I have come to believe is to be an Interpreter.

I come from grassroots, traditional thinking. I maintain my connection with my roots and my understanding is through the worldview of our Indigenous perspective, that is my basis of projecting thought. I am just a mouthpiece, no more. What I talk about, what I say, I’m merely representing the thinking of my people. My thinking is not original.

The fire of the ways of my people has always been there. The fire is still there, but it’s waning. It’s waning because the life of the Earth is waning.

This interview originally appeared in Indian Country Today.

Frances Madeson is the author of the comic novel Cooperative Village (Carol MRP Co., New York, 2007), and a social justice blogger at Written Word, Spoken Word.